Benjamin Ricketson Tucker’s Tax Resistance

American anarchist Benjamin Ricketson Tucker was, briefly, a poll tax resister. In he was imprisoned for failure to pay, and, in an outcome similar to that of Thoreau’s tax refusal, a friend eventually paid his fine and ended his experiment.

Tucker became dissatisfied with this tactic, and restricted himself thereafter to symbolic tax resistance — paying “under protest” and such.

Here’s something he wrote for his magazine, Liberty, about tax resistance in particular as part of a longer bit about the superiority of nonviolent resistance over violent resistance as a means to gain worthwhile ends:

“Edgeworth” makes appeal to me through Lucifer to know how I propose to “starve out Uncle Sam.” Light on this subject he would “rather have than roast beef and plum pudding for dinner in sæculâ sæculorum.” It puzzles him to know whether by the clause “resistance to taxation” on the “sphynx head of Liberty on ‘God and the State’” I mean that “true Anarchists should advertise their principles by allowing property to be seized by the sheriff and sold at auction, in order by such personal sacrifices to become known to each other as men and women of a common faith, true to that faith in the teeth of their interests and trustworthy for combined action.” If I do mean this, he ventures to “doubt the policy of a test which depletes, not that enormous vampire, Uncle Sam, but our own little purses, so needful for our propaganda of ideas, several times a year, distrainment by the sheriff being in many parts of the country practically equivalent to tenfold taxes.” If, on the other hand, I have in view a minority capable of “successfully withdrawing the supplies from Uncle Sam’s treasury,” he would like to inquire “how any minority, however respectable in numbers and intelligence, is to withstand the sheriff backed by the army, and to withhold tribute to the State.”

Fair and pertinent questions these, which I take pleasure in answering. In the first place, then, the policy to be pursued by individual and isolated Anarchists is dependent upon circumstances. I, no more than “Edgeworth,” believe in any foolish waste of needed material. It is not wise warfare to throw your ammunition to the enemy unless you throw it from the cannon’s mouth. But if you can compel the enemy to waste his ammunition by drawing his fire on some thoroughly protected spot; if you can, by annoying and goading and harassing him in all possible ways, drive him to the last resort of stripping bare his tyrannous and invasive purposes and put him in the attitude of a designing villain assailing honest men for purposes of plunder — there is no better strategy. Let no Anarchist, then, place his property within reach of the sheriff’s clutch. But some year, when he feels exceptionally strong and independent, when his conduct can impair no serious personal obligations, when on the whole he would a little rather go to jail than not, and when his property is in such shape that he can successfully conceal it, let him declare to the assessor property of a certain value, and then defy the collector to collect. Or, if he have no property, let him decline to pay his poll tax. The State will then be put to its trumps. Of two things one — either it will let him alone, and then he will tell his neighbors all about it, resulting the next year in an alarming disposition on their part to keep their own money in their own pockets; or else it will imprison him, and then by the requisite legal processes he will demand and secure all the rights of a civil prisoner and live thus a decently comfortable life until the State shall get tired of supporting him and the increasing number of persons who will follow his example. Unless, indeed, the State, in desperation, shall see fit to make its laws regarding imprisonment for taxes more rigorous, and then, if our Anarchist be a determined man, we shall find out how far a republican government, “deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed,” is ready to go to procure that “consent,” — whether it will stop at solitary confinement in a dark cell or join with the Czar of Russia in administering torture by electricity. The farther it shall go the better it will be for Anarchy, as every student of the history of reform well knows. Who can estimate the power for propagandism of a few cases of this kind, backed by a well-organized force of agitators without the prison walls? So much, then, for individual resistance.

But, if individuals can do so much, what shall be said of the enormous and utterly irresistible power of a large and intelligent minority, comprising say one-fifth of the population in any given locality? I conceive that on this point I need do no more than call “Edgeworth’s” attention to the wonderfully instructive history of the Land League movement in Ireland, the most potent and instantly effective revolutionary force the world has ever known so long as it stood by its original policy of “Pay No Rent,” and which lost nearly all its strength the day it abandoned that policy. “Oh, but it did abandon it?” “Edgeworth” will exclaim. Yes, but why? Because there the peasantry, instead of being an intelligent minority following the lead of principles, were an ignorant, though enthusiastic and earnest, body of men following blindly the lead of unscrupulous politicians like Parnell, who really wanted anything but the abolition of rent, but were willing to temporarily exploit any sentiment or policy that would float them into power and influence. But it was pursued far enough to show that the British government was utterly powerless before it; and it is scarcely too much to say, in my opinion, that, had it been persisted in, there would not today be a landlord in Ireland. It is easier to resist taxes in this country than it is to resist rent in Ireland; and such a policy would be as much more potent here than there as the intelligence of the people is greater, providing always that you can enlist in it a sufficient number of earnest and determined men and women. If one-fifth of the people were to resist taxation, it would cost more to collect their taxes, or try to collect them, than the other four-fifths would consent to pay into the treasury. The force needed for this bloodless fight Liberty is slowly but surely recruiting, and sooner or later it will organize for action. Then, Tyranny and Monopoly, down goes your house!

This brought to my attention that I’ve pretty much ignored the topic of rent strikes here at The Picket Line. I haven’t given this much thought, but it seems to me that there is probably a class of rent strike that is essentially a variety of tax resistance. For instance, a case in which the powers-that-be have granted legal ownership of land to well-connected people, without regard for the people currently occupying the land. Isn’t this just a variety of taxation — that is, a government authorizing some people to regularly rob others under cover of law?


Another update on the Dave Ridley case. Ridley went to court on after the court demanded that he explain why he hadn’t paid his fine after his conviction for “Distribution of Handbills” at an IRS office.

“During the court appearance the Judge asked Dave to please fill out a financial form, accept a Federal attorney, and pay the fine. Dave politely refused all of these options…”

The judge told Ridley to expect another court date soon.

Ridley and his supporters, from the New Hampshire Underground that is also the stomping ground of tax resister Russell Kanning (whom I’ve profiled here on a few occasions before), seem to be hybrid constitutionalist tax protesters and conscientious tax resisters, and they use arguments from both camps.

“Don’t pay war taxes” read the sign carried by one of the dozen or two protesters outside the courtroom on ; “I won’t pay 4 torture” read another, while three other protesters nearby wore Abu Ghraib-style head-bags. Meanwhile Ridley was asking the judge to show how the U.S. Constitution authorized the proceedings, his fine, or the original charges against him, and when the judge then compared him to convicted constitutionalist tax protester Ed “Show Me the Law” Brown, the assembled supporters applauded the comparison.

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